Manitoba

Beefed-up security at Millennium Library violates privacy, creates barrier for homeless: critics

A group of Winnipeggers opposed to new security measures at the Millennium Library say guards with metal detectors will discourage people from using the public facility and will disproportionately affect the homeless.

Group organizing community consultation event at library after implementation of bag checks, metal detectors

Advanced screening procedures took effect at the Millennium Library Monday. (Travis Golby/CBC)

A group of Winnipeggers opposed to new security measures at the Millennium Library say guards with metal detectors will discourage people from using the public facility and will disproportionately affect the homeless.

A number of security guards searched the bags of library patrons and waved metal-detecting wands over their bodies as they entered Monday on the first day of the beefed-up safety procedures.

Library services manager Ed Cuddy said earlier this month the decision to increase security is related to an increase in violent incidents where people who are "intoxicated or using other substances" have threatened staff and security.

"There is a broader issue here," said homelessness advocate Ray Eskritt. 

"They're dealing with the symptom, and they're not even dealing with the symptom in a very empathetic way, and I expect more from the library. Libraries are intended for everyone." 

Visitors at the Millennium Library have to pass through new security screening before entering. (Lyza Sale/CBC)

Anyone over the age of 13 has to have their bags checked and undergo a metal detector search. 

Cuddy previously said the library consulted with police about implementing enhanced screening techniques and the force thought it was a good idea.

But Eskritt and others say the library should've cast a wider net and consulted the community, which is why they are in the process of organizing a community forum at the library in the coming weeks.

"We're going to have hopefully a very honest and open discussion about what security measures like this mean and how they affect people and how they affect how people view downtown," she said.

As opposed to shelling out for a Jets game and being subjected to a search, a library is a public place and its users shouldn't be treated as customers, she said.

Resource for 'people with no money'

Eskritt​ has been working with the homeless for 15 years and is currently an employee at the West Broadway Community Ministry, which runs a drop-in centre and soup kitchen that serves over 100 people daily.

She is concerned that an unintended consequence of bag checks and metal detectors is that homeless Winnipeggers and those experiencing extreme poverty could be turned away.

What most people who have a home may not understand, Eskritt said, is that living on the street often means carrying everything you own on your person at all times.

Children with their parents won't be screened, but all youth over age 13 will be. (Lyza Sale/CBC)

Not everyone can set aside alcohol, drugs, tools or a sharp object in a car or at home before entering the library to warm up or relax, she said.

"The library is a huge resource for people with no money," she said.

"All of a sudden if you have something on your person that you use because you are sleeping rough, you don't have a home to go to at night, nowhere to store your things and you have, say, a keychain with a pocket knife on it, you're not allowed to access the library, which hosts social workers and Aboriginal programming and cultural programming for all kinds of low income groups."​

'At least it better work'

Robert McGregor goes to the Millennium Library a couple times a month to take out books, but he went on Monday afternoon just to experience the search protocol himself. It took about 10 minutes to get through the long line of people due to the bag checks, he said.

He had a full ring of keys and fork in a pouch in his backpack that weren't detected during the search or the metal detector sweep, and he doesn't think the measures will effectively accomplish what they set out to.

"If they're doing this, and they're violating everybody's privacy, wasting everybody's time, and making people feel uncomfortable and tense and scrutinized, at least it better work," he said.

"We have to balance the reduction of risk vis-a-vis the loss of privacy, the loss of dignity, the restriction of access to a publicly funded social good, a social institution like the library that everybody ought to have the right to access unmolested, not having to subject themselves to a mandatory bag search ... and scanning."

New screening measures require library vistors to undergo a bag check before entering. (Lyza Sale/CBC)

McGregor said the measures illustrate broader social issues related to a lack of affordable housing options and safe consumption sites, among others.

"This is a Band-Aid solution to a social problem," he said.

"You or I, if we want to do drugs or drink alcohol, we will do it in our homes or we'll do it at a bar or restaurant. Some people cannot afford to do those things. They don't have homes, they can't go to bars, they can't go to restaurants, and rather than freeze to death outside they go into places like libraries and drink and maybe drink alcohol."

'Security theatre'

Eskritt said in her years of work at Winnipeg Harvest, at youth crisis centres and with those without a home, she's come to see how they're all related.

"I've finally got to the point where there is a root to all of these issues that we're seeing, with meth and CFS and violence, and to me they're all connected to poverty," she said. 

Staff and crisis workers continually reach out to social organizations to discuss ideas on how to reduce harm and better reach vulnerable people in the library.- city spokesperson

"To solve any one of these problems, security theatre is not the way to do it. The way to do it is housing and proper financial support."

A city spokesperson said Library Services is committed to creating a "safe and welcoming environments for all."

People are still able to take shelter from extreme temperatures in the front lobby area, the spokesperson said, and the library has two community crisis workers on hand to help people in need.

"Staff and crisis workers continually reach out to social organizations to discuss ideas on how to reduce harm and better reach vulnerable people in the library," the spokersperson said.

Library Services is open to feedback and will review concerns on an ongoing basis, the spokesperson added.

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